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I had a column in the Sacramento Bee last week posing a simple question: is 2016 an opportunity for the GOP to break with its recent pattern of presidential nominees and go instead with a candidate in his or her 40s? My thinking:
— A party that started out by choosing relatively young nominees (California’s John C. Fremont was all of 43 when he became the first Republican presidential nominee in 1856; Abraham Lincoln, next up in 1860, was 51), has gone gray. Mitt Romney was 65 when he lost to President Obama in 2012. Before him: John McCain, age 72; George W. Bush, age 54; Bob Dole, age 73. That’s an average age of 66 — or, roughly the midway point between George H. W. Bush, age 64, and Ronald Reagan, age 69.
Now, the Democratic numbers: Barack Obama was 47 in 2008; John Kerry, age 60; Al Gore, age 52 in 2000; Bill Clinton, age 46 in 1992. That’s averages out to 51.25 years.
Why the interest in gerontology? The Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama presidencies mark the first time since the first quarter of the 19th Century that America has seen three consecutive two-term administrations. In addition to their Ivy League pedigrees and losing control of Congress, 42/43/44 share this: they were parents, not grandparents, while seeking the job; none qualified for a senior discount at the time of their election.
In theory, Florida Senator Marco Rubio (he turns 44 at the end of May) and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (he turned 47 last November), fit this post-Cold War profile of younger, child-rearing presidents (Walker has two college-age sons; Rubio has two sons and two daughters, none old enough to drive).
Further arguments for a more youthful Republican:
— In every presidential election dating back to Clinton’s first win in 1992, the younger of the two nominees has won the popular vote (that includes Al Gore in 2000). That doesn’t bode well for Hillary Clinton, who tuns 69 just two weeks before Election Day 2016 (Elizabeth Warren would be 67, if you’re looking for an alternative).
The last time the Democrats went with a first-time nominee of like age? Try James Buchanan, who was 65 in 1856 and, like Mrs. Clinton, a former U.S. senator and Secretary of State – and the consensus choice for the worst president in U.S. history.
This isn’t to suggest that age automatically settles our choice of a 45th president. However, in a Rubio-Clinton matchup, a 24-year age gap working against the Democratic nominee would give the GOP’s choice a rare opportunity to share common life experiences with 40-something voters – something a younger President Obama twice used to his advantage (well, three times, if you include his run against Mrs. Clinton in 2008). And maybe burrow into some of that generation’s fears and frustrations (roller-coaster economies; housing costs; Boomers who won’t retire early).
As for the Democrats’ nominee-in-waiting, it could make for tricky choices. Would Mrs. Clinton run as an Americanized version of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who offers herself as a no-nonsense Mutti (or “mommy”) steering her nation through uncertain European times? How would voters react to a hip grandmother with an affinity for modern technology (does any other candidate know more about home servers and data storage?)?